Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Hero Project #18: The Cockeyed Character Creation Checklist

On Friday, I listed six things you need to establish right away about your hero, but now let’s expand that to 25 things that you need to show (or at least know) about each lead character over the course of the whole script:
How well do you really know your man/lady/evil-creature-of-the-night? Find out before you commit—Don’t waste your precious time on another unlovable loser. Surprise them tonight with our first-ever CC quiz and figure out for sure if you’ve got a champ or a chump: If you can answer less then fifteen then you’ve got a dud. 15-20? They might be a fixer-upper. Over 20? They’re in it to win it!

  1. Age: You have to list this for every character, along with…
  2. The one-line description: Often in the pithy form of “the sort of person who…”
  3. Who might play them: Don’t put this on paper, but it’s vital that you have a general sense of this. (And if someone considers buying it, this is the first question they’ll ask you.)
  4. General role in the story: Are they the Hero, Villain, Love Interest, or Friend?
  5. Within this role, what is their type: As we’ve been discussing.
  6. Moment the audience decides to trust them or loathe them: You must know this. Don’t be ashamed to do your biggest and toughest job-- make the audience care.
  7. Stated Goal: What they say they’re after. (for instance: justice)
  8. Secret Goal: What they want out of it that they’re not telling anybody. (for instance: the love interest)
  9. Emotional Arc: How many emotional states do they pass through along the way?
  10. Profession: Yes, you always need to know this. Even if they find themselves being chased by a mad gunman on page 2 and never go to work.
  11. Where they work: Where is it and what’s it like and what are the hours? Of course, you don’t have to tell the audience all of this. Know more than you show.
  12. How they talk: This is the hardest thing to know in advance. When I prepare to write a new character, I always fear that they will never “talk” to me. Sometimes I have them talk like a friend of mine. Sometimes like a famous person. To a certain extent, their language will be determined by their job. One thing I like to do before I begin a script is to read a memoir by someone in that profession so that I’ll internalize the language. Obviously, however, that can’t be the only factor, because when we see them at work, they can’t talk like everybody else.
  13. Physical habits: Many scripts don’t list these, and the actors love to make them up themselves, but sometimes it’s good to actually put it on the page. For one thing, if you use more body language you can use less dialogue.
  14. Hobby: Not always mentioned, but good to know.
  15. Totem object: As discussed.
  16. Badass-ery, special skills: Likewise.
  17. Vulnerability, ordinariness: Maintain that badass/vulnerability ratio!
  18. Secret they’re keeping: No matter what kind of movie it is, this can add a lot. Secrets make it a whole lot easier to add subtext to dialogue.
  19. Secret being kept from them about their past: Which is sometimes, but not always, the same thing as:
  20. Biggest shock coming: Whether they’re the hero of villain, everything shouldn’t go according to their plan. Make them improvise!
  21. When the audience will really worry about the character: Hint: it can’t be the first scene. This is when you cash in the trust that you’ve built up. Just when you’ve gotten the audience to let down their defenses, stick a knife in them and twist it. They’ll love you for it.
  22. How their first action foreshadows their action for the rest of the script: This is always a great trick when you can pull it off.
  23. Moral center: What is the thing they just won’t do? This is an especially good way to define a villain.
  24. Their philosophy: An actual line of dialogue that sums up how they think about the world. Every character has a philosophy, whether they know it or not.
  25. Danger zone: Is there any reason that the audience may not react to this character the way that you want them to? Some reason they might not find your hero sympathetic? Or might be underwhelmed by your villain? Be aware of the uphill battles that you’ll have to fight to make this particular story work.

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